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“Lorem Ipsum”, Branwen 2020

Lorem: “Lorem Ipsum”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2020-09-27; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; similar):

Systems stress-test page for Gwern.net functionality, exercising Markdown/​HTML/​CSS/​JS features at scale to check that they render correctly in mobile/​desktop.

Abstract of article summarizing the page. For design philosophy, see About⁠. This is a test page which exercises all standard functionality and features of Gwern.net, from standard Pandoc Markdown like blockquotes/​headers/​tables/​images, to custom features like sidenotes, margin notes, left/​right-floated and width-full images, columns, epigraphs, admonitions, small/​wide tables, smallcaps, collapse sections, link annotations, link icons.

User-visible bugs which may appear on this page: zooms into small rather than large original image (mobile).

“Sidenotes In Web Design”, Branwen 2020

Sidenotes: “Sidenotes In Web Design”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2020-08-06; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

In typography/​design, ‘sidenotes’ place footnotes/​endnotes in the margins for easier reading. I discuss design choices, HTML implementations and their pros/​cons.

Sidenotes/​margin notes are a typographic convention which improves on footnotes & endnotes by instead putting the notes in the page margin to let the reader instantly read them without needing to refer back and forth to the end of the document (endnotes) or successive pages (footnotes spilling over).

They are particularly useful for web pages, where ‘footnotes’ are de facto endnotes, and clicking back and forth to endnotes is a pain for readers. (Footnote variants, like “floating footnotes” which pop up on mouse hover, reduce the reader’s effort but don’t eliminate it.)

However, they are not commonly used, perhaps because web browsers until relatively recently made it hard to implement sidenotes easily & reliably. Tufte-CSS has popularized the idea and since then, there has been a proliferation of slightly variant approaches. I review some of the available implementations.

For general users, I recommend Tufte-CSS: it is fast & simple (using only compile-time generation of sidenotes, rendered by static HTML/​CSS), popular, and easy to integrate into most website workflows. For heavy footnote users or users who want a drop-in, runtime Javascript-based solutions like sidenotes.js may be more useful.

“Banner Ads Considered Harmful”, Branwen 2017

Ads: “Banner Ads Considered Harmful”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2017-01-08; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

9 months of daily A/​B-testing of Google AdSense banner ads on Gwern.net indicates banner ads decrease total traffic substantially, possibly due to spillover effects in reader engagement and resharing.

One source of complexity & JavaScript use on Gwern.net is the use of Google AdSense advertising to insert banner ads. In considering design & usability improvements, removing the banner ads comes up every time as a possibility, as readers do not like ads, but such removal comes at a revenue loss and it’s unclear whether the benefit outweighs the cost, suggesting I run an A/​B experiment. However, ads might be expected to have broader effects on traffic than individual page reading times/​bounce rates, affecting total site traffic instead through long-term effects on or spillover mechanisms between readers (eg. social media behavior), rendering the usual A/​B testing method of per-page-load/​session randomization incorrect; instead it would be better to analyze total traffic as a time-series experiment.

Design: A decision analysis of revenue vs readers yields an maximum acceptable total traffic loss of ~3%. Power analysis of historical Gwern.net traffic data demonstrates that the high autocorrelation yields low statistical power with standard tests & regressions but acceptable power with ARIMA models. I design a long-term Bayesian ARIMA(4,0,1) time-series model in which an A/​B-test running January–October 2017 in randomized paired 2-day blocks of ads/​no-ads uses client-local JS to determine whether to load & display ads, with total traffic data collected in Google Analytics & ad exposure data in Google AdSense. The A/​B test ran from 2017-01-01 to 2017-10-15, affecting 288 days with collectively 380,140 pageviews in 251,164 sessions.

Correcting for a flaw in the randomization, the final results yield a surprisingly large estimate of an expected traffic loss of −9.7% (driven by the subset of users without adblock), with an implied −14% traffic loss if all traffic were exposed to ads (95% credible interval: −13–16%), exceeding my decision threshold for disabling ads & strongly ruling out the possibility of acceptably small losses which might justify further experimentation.

Thus, banner ads on Gwern.net appear to be harmful and AdSense has been removed. If these results generalize to other blogs and personal websites, an important implication is that many websites may be harmed by their use of banner ad advertising without realizing it.

“Statistical Notes”, Branwen 2014

Statistical-notes: “Statistical Notes”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2014-07-17; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Miscellaneous statistical stuff

Given two disagreeing polls, one small & imprecise but taken at face-value, and the other large & precise but with a high chance of being totally mistaken, what is the right Bayesian model to update on these two datapoints? I give ABC and MCMC implementations of Bayesian inference on this problem and find that the posterior is bimodal with a mean estimate close to the large unreliable poll’s estimate but with wide credible intervals to cover the mode based on the small reliable poll’s estimate.

“A/B Testing Long-form Readability on Gwern.net”, Branwen 2012

AB-testing: “A/B testing long-form readability on Gwern.net”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2012-06-16; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

A log of experiments done on the site design, intended to render pages more readable, focusing on the challenge of testing a static site, page width, fonts, plugins, and effects of advertising.

To gain some statistical & web development experience and to improve my readers’ experiences, I have been running a series of CSS A/​B tests since June 2012. As expected, most do not show any meaningful difference.

“Design Graveyard”, Branwen 2010

Design-graveyard: “Design Graveyard”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2010-10-01; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Meta page describing Gwern.net website design experiments and post-mortem analyses.

Often the most interesting part of any design are the parts that are invisible—what was tried but did not work. Sometimes they were unnecessary, other times users didn’t understand them because it was too idiosyncratic, and sometimes we just can’t have nice things.

Some post-mortems of things I tried on Gwern.net but abandoned (in chronological order).

“Design Of This Website”, Branwen 2010

Design: “Design Of This Website”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2010-10-01; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Meta page describing Gwern.net site implementation and experiments for better ‘structural reading’ of hypertext; technical decisions using Markdown and static hosting.

Gwern.net is implemented as a static website compiled via Hakyll from Pandoc Markdown and hosted on a dedicated server (due to expensive cloud bandwidth).

It stands out from your standard Markdown static website by aiming at good typography, fast performance, and advanced hypertext browsing features (at the cost of great implementation complexity); the 4 design principles are: aesthetically-pleasing minimalism, accessibility/​progressive-enhancement, speed, and a ‘structural reading’ approach to hypertext use.

Unusual features include the monochrome esthetics, sidenotes instead of footnotes on wide windows, efficient drop caps/​smallcaps, collapsible sections, automatic inflation-adjusted currency, Wikipedia-style link icons & infoboxes, custom syntax highlighting⁠, extensive local archives to fight linkrot, and an ecosystem of “popup”/​“popin” annotations & previews of links for frictionless browsing—the net effect of hierarchical structures with collapsing and instant popup access to excerpts enables iceberg-like pages where most information is hidden but the reader can easily drill down as deep as they wish. (For a demo of all features & stress-test page, see Lorem Ipsum⁠.)

Also discussed are the many failed experiments /  ​ changes made along the way.